Wednesday, 5 November 2008

What's your story?

Everyone has a story to tell. That’s the premise of BBC Capture Wales, a project enabling people to create digital shorts about their real-life experiences using their own photos, words and voices. The tales provide snapshots into the lives of ordinary people, sometimes revealing depths of experience often missed in the humdrum of daily life, like this one.

As well as creating beautiful, bold stories, one of the main drives of the project is to improve digital literacy. In a world where sounds and images increasingly rule, director of the project Daniel Meadows counts the ability to communicate in these ways as the basic literacy of our age. In fact he directly correlates social and digital inclusion by pointing to high levels of digital illiteracy among the unemployed.

These ideas reminded me of a similar project I came across in Kenya. Slum TV is a Nairobi-based film project documenting life in Mathare, the country’s largest and most dangerous slum. Since it began just a year ago it's emerged as a means for young locals to express themselves and initiate dialogue both within and outside their community. Like Capture Wales, a group of volunteer ‘facilitators’ teach the technological and storytelling skills needed for the young journalists to produce their own material. And what they produce are intimate stories from the inside: tales and perspectives that the national, let alone the international, media could never access.

Back in Wales, Daniel Meadows stresses that to make participatory journalism like this work, there’s an absolute need that what is made is shared. Equally, vital parts of Slum TV are the regular public screenings shown to Mathare’s residents. I was lucky enough to be at the very first screening, projected from the back of a pick-up truck onto a huge whitewashed wall in the heart of the slum. The project’s founding idea that the camera ‘always attracts attention’ never rang more true as hundreds of residents crammed into a makeshift clearing, all eyes glued to the images flickering on the wall.

That was in October 2007, three months later Kenya was to erupt in a storm of post-election violence. Mathare, home to almost 500,000 people from different tribes, was to bear some of the worst of this violence as residents took up arms against each other. It was in the midst of this that Slum TV really proved its worth both inside and outside the community. The volunteers began recording the bloodshed through the eyes of those living within it, offering unparalleled human perspectives of the crisis to the outside world. Below is the first part of an Al Jazeera special report on what the Slum TV journalists got up to:

At the same time, Kenyan citizen journalists began to collaborate on a web-based platform called Ushahidi, meaning ‘testimony’ in Swahili. It’s goal was to crowd-source crisis information by allowing anyone to submit information via mobile texts, email or, interestingly, social networking sites like twitter and Facebook. It took just two days to launch Ushahidi and immediately it began bridging the gap between relief efforts and distress calls from around the country. User-generated reports were collected and then visualized on the Internet using Google maps, giving a more accurate picture of what was happening on the ground and helping direct emergency aid to affected areas.

Similar technology was used after Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans, but the fact that this happened in Africa amazes and excites me. Since January 2008, the same platform has been employed in South Africa to monitor and map anti-immigrant violence in the early summer of 2008. And I don’t expect this to be the last occasion it’s used. The implications of this kind of citizen journalism are huge and I hope they’ll change the way complex crises in the news are communicated and understood by the wider world.

Capture Wales, Slum TV and Ushahidi prove that if you give people the tools and the knowledge to use them, they will, because within us all it seems there’s a story waiting to be told.

1 comment:

glyn said...

A really interesting example of how these technologies can be used in a number of ways.

I'd never heard of Slum Tv before - but find it really interesting and powerful stuff.

Digital narratives are really very powerful in their directness, and coming from a newspaper background make me think of them as a digital feature.

The idea of psychogeography also really intrigues me, the ability to map personal views on a map.

How we can use them is a different matter and that's why I think your example of Ushahidi is so exciting.